The Place & People
Assam is a land of varied socio-cultural elements. Its multi ethnic society has the Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhist, Muslims living together for centuries in peace and harmony. A wide range of ethnic group is also present in the region and they have contributed a lot towards the socio-cultural development of the state. A good number of these ethnic groups belong to the tribal community. Presently tribal population has occupied 12.82% of the total population of Assam, while the tribal population of the country is 8.08%. Simply to say the term 'Assamese' is defined as the union of various tribes. The contribution of varied traditions and customs of all the tribes, have been bearing the evidence of the unity. The first printed Assamese book is called “Dharmapustak” it is a Christian bible in translation that was printed in the mission press in Sreerampur in Bengal in 1835. The Barak Valley is a swampy plain interspersed with low hills, named after Barak river. Apart from Sylheti Bengalis, Barak Valley also is the home land of Manipuris(Both Bishnupriya and Meiti), Cacharis,Rongmai Nagas,and tea garden labourers.
The tribal population presently living in the state can be widely divided as – Hill tribes and Plain tribes.
Hill Tribes: Chakma, Dimasa, Garo, Hajong, Hmar, Karbi, Khasi, Kuki, Lakher, Mizo, Maan, Naga, Pawi, Syntheng etc.
Plain Tribes: Bodo, Barman, Deori, Hojai, Mech, Mising, Rabha, Sonowal, Tiwa etc.
The principal migrants have been the Austro-Asiatics, the Dravidians, the Tibeto-Burmans, the Mongoloids and the Aryans. The Austro-Asiatics, who were one of the earliest to arrive, initially lived in the Brahmaputra Valley, but were later pushed to the hills by the subsequent waves of migrants. The Khasis and Jaintias of present-day Meghalaya are said to be the descendants of this stock.
Next to come were the Dravidians, and the ethnological conjecture is that the Kaibarta ND Bania communities of modern Assam are descendants of this group.
The Mongoloid migration to Assam took place at long intervals and from widely varied sources. They, in general, belong to the Tibeto-Burman family of the Indo-Chinese group. The early waves of this group constituted the ancestors of the present-day Kacharis, Dimasas, Bodos, Rabhas and Lahungs, as also most of the tribes living in the hills neighbouring modern Assam. The Kacharis are a powerful family and are today mostly known as the Bodos in the Brahmaputra Valley and Dimasas in the North Cachar Hills. The Koches on the other hand are said to be an admixture of the Dravidian and Mongoloid stocks. They are called Rajbangshis in the extreme western part of the State.
The Chutiyas in Upper Assam originally settled in the north- eastern tip of the region, but later gave way to make room for the Ahoms, who belonged to the Shan sub-section of the great Indo-chinese family.
The Mishings and the Karbis belong to the Tibeto-Burman stock, and inhabit the northern plains of Upper Assam and the Karbi Hills respectively. The Khamtis of extreme Upper Assam, an also the Naras, phakiyals and Shyams (Man-Tai and Tai-Turung) belong to the Shan sub-section, and are believed to be group who arrived much after the Ahoms.
Assam today has 16 Scheduled Castes and 23 Scheduled Tribes, with proposals for inclusion of more ethnic groups in the two categories still awaiting approval of the Centre.
Dance, Drama & Music
Assam’s folk music and dances has a lively rhythm. The musical accompaniment for both folk songs and the folk dances is provided by a diversity of musical instruments like Dhol, Cymbal, flute, Pepa and may others. Music has the focus at all major social events - fairs, feasts, festivals, dances and marriages.
Music and dance form the very base of rural Assam. Traditional dances like Bihu, Satriiya and many others display the extraordinarily rich and lively culture of Assam
Satriya dance, the unique form of dance recital of Assam is an invaluable creation of Srimanta Sankardeb, the great apostle of the Vaishnavite movement of the sixteenth century. The Satras in Assam have been functioning as the cultural forum for preserving and projecting this dance form for the last five decades. Satriya dance belongs to the 'Odra Magadhi' school of music and dance. This art has already been recognised as a classical dance. However local and folk elements have also been incorporated within its classical character.
A cultural synthesis of dance, drama and music, Satriya dance is a rich cultural heritage of Assam as well as India. Developing through successive stages of tradition, Satriya dance has reached its present day status of aesthetic excellence. There is enough scope for its further development if its perspective of performance takes into account the thematic possibilities offered by the whole literary corpus of Srimanta Sankardeb and Madhavdeb. No doubt, Satriya dance then will be able to gain honour and recognition in the international stage.
Bihu Dance the famous folk dance of the region is very joyous and performed by both young and old men and women. The female dancers are called "Nachoni" and they dance on the rhythmic music played by the male. This dance form is so lively that it makes your foot tap and enthralls your spirit and mood.
Assamese are hospitable people with majority of the local population speaking Assamese. Hindi, Bengali and English is also widely spoken by the people of the state. Apart from this the various tribes and sub tribes of the region have their own dialect.
Among the major indigenous languages other than Assamese are Bodo, Karbi, Mishing, Rabha etc.
The language however is surrounded on all sides by different speeches of the Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Chinese families. Of these, the Tibeto-Burman family, which contains a wide variety of racial cells, is by far the largest. The Bodo language group, to which belong the Kacharis, Rabhas, Lalungs, Morans and Chutiyas to some extent, dominates the Tibeto-Burman family. Most of these tribes have different dialects,both spoken and written, but all of them have tremendously contributed to the formation, development and growth of the Assamese language.
The origin of the Assamese language dates back to antiquity. Scholars are of the view that the language originated from the eastern variety of Magadhan Prakrit. It is by all standards a composite language into which words of Indo-Aryan, Indo-Chinese as well as Tibeto-Burman origins have made their way. Besides, other pre-Aryan and non-Aryan, influences are also discernible, not only in loan words, but also in point of grammar, syntax and pronunciation. The earliest specimens of Assamese script is provided by copper plates and inscriptions discovered in different areas of the origin.
Assam was once upon a time the original home of Tantricism in India. The Shakti temples like Kamakhya in Guwahati and Kechaikhati near Sadiya are proof to this. While veneration to Shiva largely prevailed in the early period, the mother goddess cult gained ground subsequently. In fact, at one time, Assam came to be identified with Tantrik, Shaktism, especially centering around the Kamakhya temple. Even today, Shiva and the Mother Goddess are venerated in various forms at the folk level in large sections of the Assamese society, both tribal and non-tribal.
Vaishnavism, another form of Hinduism, also had made a fairly early entry into Assam, but in the beginning it was nothing more than a cult. It was Mahapurush Srimanta Sankaradeva who gave a new definition to this cult through his neo-Vaishnavite movement , and this left untouched practically no aspect of Assamese society. So strong was this movement that it has pervaded the entire range of Assamese life and culture, cutting across religious and sectarian beliefs and practices.
Sankaradeva’s neo-Vaishnavite bhakti movement was the harbinger of a renaissance with many –sided ramifications- spiritual, social, humanistic, artistic and literary.
The entry of Islam as a religion to Assam came through neighbouring Bengal which already had Muslim rulers a few decades after the Moghul dynasty was established in India, and Islam today is an important religion here. Islamic shrines of the State include Poa-Mecca of Hajo (Poa-meaning one-forth) and the Ajan Pir Dargah near Sibsagar, among others.
Buddhism on the other hand first came down from Bhutan in the north, and then from Myanmar in the east. In fact, the Hayagriba Madhava temple of Hajo is simultaneously a place of worship for both Hindus and Buddhists alike.
People of Assam love traditional as well as Indian and continental cuisine. A fusion of indigenous as well external influences, Assamese cuisine will definitely pamper your taste-buds. Assamese cuisine is characterized by the use of simple ingredients which are very delicious. Rice is principle component of Assamese cuisine. Besides that fermented food is also used widely which has a distinct flavour. Fish and Meat are the favourite food of the Assamese. Vegetable dishes are also liked by large number of people. Amongst the vegetable dishes 'Aloo Pitika' is very popular.
In fact Assamese cuisine is very tasty and different from what you have ever tasted elsewhere. 'Machor Tenga' (a tangy fish curry) and rice is a common dish of Assam. The specialty of Assamese food is that these are less spicy and less oily.
Fairs & Festivals of Assam
Assam being the homeland of various ethnic tribes, who had migrated to Assam from far away regions, follows different religions. Hence one would find various cultures with distinct characteristics. There are three broad types of festivals in Assam- (a) Agricultural festivals, (b) Religious festivals and (c) Social festivals.
Like many other community festivals 'Bihu' is a festival related to agriculture. This festival took shape either as a pre-harvesting or post-harvesting festival. The rites and traditions of this festival are therefore related to the fertility cult. The Bihu festival of Assam is an ancient cultural heritage of the Assamese people, the origin of which is difficult to trace out. There are three types of Bihu namely Bohag Bihu, Kati Bihu and Magh Bihu.
The Bohag or Rongali Bihu:
This particular festival is one of the greatest festivals of the state. With the advent of the spring season the Assamese community celebrates the Bohag/Rongali Bihu with traditional gaiety and enthusiasm. It is being celebrated in this land of the Red River and Blue Hills since time immemorial.
This Bihu starts on the last day of the month of Chot or Chaitra. It is generally celebrated for two days but festivities continue for seven days thereafter. The first day is called Goru Bihu when people bathe their cows and oxes, tie them with new ropes and feeds them vegetables and Pithas (traditional Assamese sweetmeats). The second day is called Manuh Bihu and this is the first day of the month of Bohag. Gamochas (Traditional Napkins) are exchanged and youngsters perform Bihu songs and dances. With the accompaniment of musical instruments like Dhol (drum), Taal (cymbals) and Pepa (pipes) Bihu troupes known as Husori move from house to house performing dances and songs. Nowadays these performances are also done on modern stages.
Most of the tribes in Assam celebrate Bohag Bihu in their own traditional way. Bodo Kacharis observe it as Baisagu, Tiwas as Bisu, Deories as Bahagiyo Bihu, Rabhas as Johang Pula and the like. The list is endless.
The Kati or Kongali Bihu:
The Kati or Kongali (poor) Bihu is so called because it is celebrated during the lean month of Kati when almost every article becomes scarce. On this Bihu, people light earthen lamps (saki) near Tulsi (black basil) plants and in their fields and pray for a good harvest and a full granary.
The Magh or Bhogali Bihu:
The Magh or Bhogali (feasting) Bihu begins on the last day of the month of Puh and ends on the first day of Magh. The day before Magh Bihu is called as Uruka and on this day people arranges community feasts in their neighbourhood and pass the night amidst merriment besides lighting bonfires (Bhelaghars) made of bamboo and straw. Next morning people light Mejis (bonfires again) and offer prayers to Agni (the God of fire). The Assamese womenfolk prepare traditional delicacies like Chira, different types of Pithas (sweetmeats), Akhoi, Doi (curd) during this Bihu. Traditional games like buffalo fights, cockfights and wrestling are organised.
Different communities reside in Assam as such there are diverse religious festivals, which are of course celebrated with equal ardour and gaiety by all the communities irrespective of religion. Some of the popular religious festivals of Assam are- Shivaratri, Ambubashi, Durga Puja, Kali Puja/Deepavali, Saraswati Puja, Vishwakarma Puja, Manasha Puja, Kuwori Puja, Id-Uz-Zoha, Mohrram, Holi, Good Friday, Budh Purnima, Ganesh Chaturthi, Id-Ul-fitre, Christmas, Tithis or anniversaries of Sankardeb and Madhavdeb, Raas Purnima, Bathow puja etc.
Apart from the agricultural and religious festivals celebrated in Assam there are also other social festivals that are a part of the culture of the state. These festivals mark the occasions of marriage, birth etc. So one can come across common social festivals like- Annaprasan (feeding grains to an infant), Churakaran (shaving of hair of Brahmin males), Tuloni Biya (A mock marriage at puberty), Upanayan (thread ceremony of Brahmins), Jurun (Adorning ornaments on the bride the day before marriage), Biya (marriage), Aath Mongola (return of the bride to her parents home on the eighth day after marriage) etc.
Other Important Tribal Festivals:
Ali-Aiye-Lrigang- This is a famous religious festival related to cultivation celebrated by the 'Mising' tribes of Assam. It is celebrated for five days in the month of 'Fagun'. The youngsters perform 'Gumarag' dance in this festival.
Bash Puja- It’s a religious and folk festival of the Hajong and Rajbonshi’s of undivided Goalpara district. Celebrated in the spring season, this festival prohibits the participation of females. ‘Bash’ meaning bamboo, are cleaned and worshiped as they are considered as symbols of God ‘Madan’ and ‘Gopal’.
Bathow Puja- The Bodo tribes celebrate this festival. They believe and worship ‘Bathow’ or ‘Sibrai’ as their prime God. This particular festival is celebrated twice a year. ‘Deodhani’ and ‘Kherai’ dances are performed during this festival.
Mahoho- It is one of the folk festivals, which are basically celebrated, in lower Assam. The people believe that after this festival ‘Mahoho’ meaning mosquitoes will decrease. To drive out mosquitoes the youth celebrate this festival on the full moon night (purnima) in the month of ‘Aghun’.
Tusu Puja- This festival is the main traditional festival of the tea tribes. ‘Tusu’ who is the goddess of the tea tribes is worshiped in the month of ‘Magh’. The people of the tea community with great joy and enthusiasm perform a colourful dance called ‘Jhumur’.